Nick was adamant. He didn’t want to think beyond the impending summer. And his summer plans? Helping out on the farm and playing some baseball. “But what about after that?” he was asked, over and over again. He didn’ t know. But one afternoon in July, things became clearer.
Because of his skill as a baseball player he was asked to play on a local pickup team that called themselves the Wood County Polecats. The Polecats played each other when they weren’t playing other local teams. They were a motley sort of team whose players ranged in age from about 16 to 40 plus. Some of the players were big muscled guys from the oil fields. Some were downtown types who needed a break from work and home. Others, like Nick, simply loved baseball and could think of nothing they would rather do than play on the weekends and weeknights before it got dark.
The Polecats’ manager, Hugh Thurston, also happened to be the associate editor of the town newspaper. He was not only in charge of managing the team on the field, but he was the one to set up the schedule. As the Polecats entered the month of July, they already had fifteen games on tap, weather permitting. Half were at home, some were as far away as Toledo, Fremont and southern Michigan. Nick usually batted fourth or fifth in the lineup, and typically he caught every pitcher on the team. He was the only one able to handle the short, squat knuckleballer George Reynolds, who delivered his pitches with much fanfare and varying accuracy.
One of their earliest July games took them into Monroe, Michigan to face the team from Weis Furniture Company. Weis was the best team the Cats had faced all year, but fortunately Georgie was on that day, bewildering the opposition and striking out nine batters. Nick’s big bat provided all the offense that was needed. He drove two runners in with a single and got a home run and the Polecats won the game 3-2.
As the team celebrated their win, Nick was approached by a muscular young man with a long beard like a Civil War veteran and wavy dark hair. Tapping him on the shoulder, he said, “You’re Nicholas Vogel, the catcher, right?”
Nick turned and took in this unusual looking gentleman from head to toe. “Yes.” The man extended a large calloused hand. “I’m Walter Masters. I represent the House of David baseball team.” “Yes?” Nick hesitated. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of us, but we’re a group out of Benton Harbor, west of here, not far from South Bend.”
Nick’s eyes widened. “I think I’ve heard of you. You all wear beards and such and you barnstorm around the Midwest playing ball.”
“Right,” the man replied. “Actually, we’ve been doing so well we’re starting to book games out of the area – into Illinois, over to Chicago, and up into Wisconsin. And we’ve got another club traveling down south. We’re in need of some more young strong ballplayers like you.
“Most of the ballplayers are members of our community but you wouldn’t have to join. You see, we don’t really have enough spare talent to field two strong teams for the rest of the season, so we’re scouting around. So, young man, are you interested in playing for us?’
Nicholas blinked and stepped back. “Well, I, I, just don’t know. ” Walter lowered his voice. “We can’t pay you much. But we can cover your meals and board during the season. When we’re at home you’ll live in the community.”
Nick looked flummoxed.
“In the last few years we’ve won about 75% of our games. We’re good – real good. Do you know anything about the House of David?” he asked.
“Not really, other than your teams are pretty tough,” Nick replied. “And you’re all Jewish, aren’t you?”
“No, not at all. We’re Christian. We don’t play on Sundays, of course.” Walter took him by the arm and steered him away from the celebrating Polecats.
“One of the most important things we believe in is health. Good health. That means not eating meat – getting along on fruits, vegetables and grains – and getting lots of exercise. That’s how the baseball teams started years ago. To keep members active.”
“Not eating meat!” Nick considered this and shuddered, unable to imagine such a diet change. This Walter Masters was awfully strong-looking, though, but slender. Would Nick be able to survive, much less play baseball, on such a diet?
“Our season runs up until about Labor Day. “ He pulled a piece of paper out of his back pocket. “This is our schedule for the rest of the season. As you can see here, we’re going to be in Toledo next Saturday for a doubleheader. If you’re interested in signing on, come on by. Or, do you have a telephone?”
Nick nodded. “Lemme write our telephone number at the top here. That’s the main number. They’ll answer it ‘Israelite House of David.’ You can ask for me if you see that we’re in town at the time. We need a strong young backup catcher like you, Nicholas! I hope to see you next week, or you call me, hear?” He shook his hand again, smiled and turned to go, his dark, wavy locks wafting behind him.
The Polecats waited a half a minute or so as the man walked out of earshot, then descended upon Nick en masse.
Some of the Polecats seemed greatly impressed that a well-known team like the House of David was interested in one of their own, while the others couldn’t quite get over how the gentleman’s prodigious beard reminded them of their grandfathers.
“Can you imagine Nick here with a long yeller mane? Wonder if it would get in the way when he swings?”
Nick laughed along with the jokes, but inside he acknowledged that this was something he might really want to consider. What would be the harm? At the longest he would be with them for ten weeks. And during those ten weeks he could probably learn a lot from this team. They were well-known but not just for their unusual look. They were smart, fast, well-practiced and professional: four characteristics that did not describe the Polecats. The more he thought about it, the more he got excited. Now he could answer all those questions about his summer plans. He was headed north, he was going to grow a beard, and he was going to play himself some baseball!